Turkey's rich history and Muslim majority is no bar to its bid to join the European Union.
Turkey has entered the final stage of its bid to join the EU club, but its candidacy still stirs controversy. Even advocates of Turkish membership point to legitimate concerns over Ankara's human rights and democratic record. The heavy-handed repression of a women's rally in Istanbul on 6 March reawakened those concerns. The European Parliament condemned the repression and called on the European Commission and Council of Ministers to monitor women's rights closely.
While the Turkish government attempts reform to meet these concerns, outspoken opponents of Turkey's membership have still deeper objections. They cite cultural, religious and geographical differences as reasons for keeping Turkey outside the Union's walls. Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing famously warned that Turkish membership would spell “the end of the EU”.
Just before Turkey got the green light to begin accession talks in December, Frits Bolkestein, the then internal market commissioner, warned against what he called the “Islamisation of Europe”. If certain predictions came true, he warned, then, “the relief of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain”.
The Dutch politician was dramatically comparing Turkey's application with the Ottoman siege of Vienna which was broken by the Polish king, John III, but not before the Turks gave Vienna its famous coffee houses. Viennese bakers created the crescent-shaped croissant to celebrate this victory.
This ‘clash of civilisations' idea breaks down when one considers that all Europe's major powers have come to blows on numerous occasions, and the continent was brought to the brink of annihilation, without any Turkish intervention, in the Second World War. “All cultural, religious and historic identities are constructed,” says Senem Aydin of the Centre for European Policy Studies. “We have to deconstruct all the myths [and] assumed ‘essences'.”
Rather than stressing the differences between Turkey and the EU, it is possible to look at their similarities. “The Europe that we should all wish for is a Europe that is… inclusive and tolerant, multiethnic and multicultural,” says Amanda Akcakoca of the European Policy Centre. “That Europe is a Europe that would, without doubt, include Turkey.”
Some argue that Turkey has always been a part of modern Europe. For more than half a millennium, the Turks have had a profound influence on the European stage. In the early 14th century, they gained a foothold when Byzantine political factions employed Ottoman mercenaries in their struggles for supremacy. But with Mehmet II's conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century the Ottomans became a force to be reckoned with.
King Francis I of France (1494-1547) once said that he considered the Ottoman Empire to be the only power capable of protecting European states against the Hapsburg Empire. Subsequently, the Ottomans created close ties with the Dutch and the English against Spain.
Although the Ottomans were the nominal rulers of a vast empire, they were not interested in changing local systems. Instead, they asked their non-Muslim citizens to pay an extra tax in return for the protected – albeit second class – dhimmi status. An important part of this framework was the millet system – essentially a division of the empire into relatively autonomous communities based on religious affiliations.
The Ottoman empire also welcomed asylum seekers, such as the Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition who ended up in Istanbul, leading Sultan Bayezid II to comment: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.”
The Turks withdrew from offensive conflicts in the 18th century and promoted cultural exchange with the ascending powers of Europe through their Ottoman embassies – the precursors of modern international diplomacy. In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire became know as the ‘sick man of Europe' because of its continued failure to keep pace with its rivals.
At around the same time, the Ottoman Empire, Austria and Germany were faced with the pan-Slavic movement which indirectly led to the various wars of independence in the Balkans. But Turkey's siding with Germany in the First World War was the final blow for the empire and the Turks committed deplorable crimes, like the geoncide of the Armenians, that put a massive black mark on traditional Ottoman tolerance.
The father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, president in 1922-28, was determined to mould Turkey into a modern European secular state. He revamped the legal system, purged the language of much of its Arabic influence, and introduced Roman script. And, since the Second World War, Turkey has been working hard to integrate itself into the western political machinery. Institutionally, the claim that Turkey is not European is weakened by its membership of the Council of Europe (1949), NATO (1952), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (1975) and the European Customs Union (1995) for longer than some EU member states.
Part of the problem has been the pace of Turkish reform. “The main culprit in holding back Turkey's membership aspirations has been Turkey itself,” Akcakoca believes. Perhaps ironically, it is the moderate Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that has done the most to ready Turkey for EU membership. “Since the Copenhagen summit of 2002…stronger conditionality [from the EU] has triggered a serious reform movement in Turkey,” notes Aydin. “However…debates over the absorption capacity of the EU, the ratification of the constitution and…identity still remain to cloud relations between the two.”
But supporters are optimistic that Turkey will become a member of the EU, probably by 2015. This would bring economic, political and security advantages for the two. It would also send a welcome signal to an increasingly divided world. “Turkey's membership should… strengthen the relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds,” says the Akcakoca, “refuting the ‘clash of civilisations' scenario”.
This article appeared in the 17-23 March 2005 issue of European Voice